Friday, September 11, 2009
Savoring this taste of a special Air
By Justin Verrier
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Michael Jordan had a front-row seat to the end of his basketball career.
The entire night at Symphony Hall, Jordan watched highlight reels of himself in the past, throwing down acrobatic dunks, hitting game-changing shots and defying gravity, tongue wagging in the air.
By the time his name was called and the time had finally come at the end of the night, the emotion immediately spilled out and tears began to flow.
The crowd was captivated by his every word as he gave a speech as charismatic as his play on the court was. Finally, though, Jordan ended his inauguration speech by saying he doesn't see his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame as the "defining end."
"It's simply a continuation of something I started a long time ago," he said.
But, truth is, Jordan's induction marked not only the end of the road for one of the greatest players in professional sports but the end of era.
Jordan's induction was a celebration, not just in honor of the best player ever to grace the hardwood but for the game of basketball, its history and its fans.
And, in that sense, it was.
At a morning news conference for the inductees at the Basketball Hall of Fame building, underneath photos of the 288 best players and coaches in basketball history, fans draped in black, red and Carolina blue lined the top of the balcony just to catch a glimpse of The Great One. And throughout his 20-minute interview, camera flashes rained down harder than the storm outside. Even media members were reaching for their phones and cameras.
Those moments -- and the ones soon to follow down the street -- were special. And everyone in the room knew it.
But for Jordan, his induction is bittersweet.
Although he said what a privilege it was to be honored, in classic Jordan style, he isn't quite ready to admit defeat. He admitted as much in an interview with Michael Wilbon, saying he's not ready to be "put out to pasture."
And for a player known for his drive as much as his ability, it isn't too surprising.
His physical skills might have faded (although Jordan joked that he might make a comeback at 50), but the one thing Jordan hasn't lost is his relentlessness and his desire to be the best.
Almost his entire speech Friday night was devoted to thanking all the naysayers -- from media members to NBA players to Leroy Smith, who was chosen ahead of Jordan for a spot on their varsity high school team -- for the motivation over his career, showing how, even at age 46, his greatest victories come by proving others wrong.
And you could still hear it in his voice as he talked about turning the then-middling Bulls into a dynasty at his morning news conference.
"When I first got to Chicago, they were not doing well," he said. "The only way we could go was up. We couldn't go any further down. I came from a prestigious university that was, I guess, built on winning. And my attitude was always about doing what I could to help this team win."
He later put it into perspective, recalling a time when he was pulled aside by former Chicago assistant Tex Winter after scoring 20 points in a row to lead the Bulls to victory.
"Tex reminded me that there's no 'I' in team," Jordan said. "And I looked back at Tex and said, 'There's an "I" in win.'
So whichever way you want it."
That patented Jordan hunger for greatness was also what kept pulling him back into basketball after retiring twice, with one of the returns when he was 38.
But there's no comeback this time.
This time, Mike has to hang up his Nikes for good, officially closing the book on his basketball career and finishing his chapter in NBA history.
Although Jordan probably would love another chance to add to his legacy and somehow prolong it with some final last-second magic, his résumé is already the stuff of legends: six NBA championships, five MVPs, two gold medals and the unofficial title of "greatest of all time" -- a moniker few can dispute.
Well, there's actually one person who would dare argue otherwise.
"When people say that I'm the greatest to play the game, I cringe a little bit," Jordan said. "I receive that as an opinion and something that someone's either going to agree with what I did in the game of basketball.
"But to me, personally, I never played against Jerry West, I never played against Elgin Baylor, I never played against Wilt Chamberlain.
Yeah, I would have loved to. But to say I'm better than those people is not for me to decide. I'm happy with my accomplishments and what people may say."
If he could go back and play Wilt or West, he would. And he probably would like a shot at the LeBrons and Kobes of today, too. Just for the thrill of the competition. Just to keep proving people wrong.
But Jordan's reign on the court is over -- this time, officially.
Now, it's LeBron James' time. It's Kobe Bryant's time. And Dwyane Wade's, too.
It's their time to blaze their own paths, ring in some new era and be the next big thing.
Jordan understands that. He might not like it, but he's willing to admit it.
But whoever it is, he won't be Mike.
"Don't be in the rush to find the next Michael Jordan," he said. "There's not going to be a next Michael Jordan."
Jordan noted how the game is constantly evolving and that each era has its own star. Jordan's time was different from Wilt's, and today's different from Jordan's. And if we spend our time searching for the next Jordan, he said, we might miss out on someone special, just in a different way than he was.
"We -- and when I say 'we,' I mean you guys more than me -- are constantly trying to find that next Michael Jordan," he said. "First of all, you didn't find me. I just came along, and next thing you know
here I am.
"You didn't have to find me. And you won't have to find that next person. It's going to happen. And I'm pretty sure you guys are going to recognize it. And if you haven't already, in due time, you'll know."
Today's crop of young stars might never be like Mike. But maybe that's a good thing.
It's been almost 25 years since Jordan first stepped on an NBA court. With his career now officially over, his legacy as a player set in stone, maybe it's time to finally move on.
"I think those guys have the potential to be better than Michael Jordan down the road," he said. "They're going to create their own path, their own persona, their own people. Just give it time."
If Friday is any indication, it might take a while for everyone, including Jordan, to let go.
|Jordan's closing line: "Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion."|
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com.